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In 2019, when Ann Sarnoff became the first female chair and CEO of Warner Bros. in the company's nearly 100-year existence, the Massachusetts native was given the full red-carpet rollout on the storied studio lot. From The Big Bang Theory to Casablanca, many of your favorite TV series and films have been brought to life on the Burbank property, but there was one set in particular that Sarnoff couldn't wait to see up close: Central Perk.
“I'm a superfan,” Sarnoff says of Friends, which filmed at Warner Bros. from 1994 to 2004 and is one of only five soundstages to be renamed in its honor. “I've definitely sat on that couch and it makes me smile.”
But getting there wasn't easy. “I didn't have a lot of professional role models in my life growing up,” Sarnoff tells Glamour. “I had no idea how television shows or movies were made back then because I didn't have exposure to those kinds of careers.” She did watch a lot of TV—Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, to name a few—mainly because it was like a second family. "I was a latchkey kid, so in second grade I'd come home to an empty house. TV kept me company.”
But even then, becoming a studio executive was the last thing on Sarnoff's mind. “My family was very musical, so for quite a few years, I wanted to be a singer-songwriter,” she says. “It just seemed like a fun thing to do.” Once Sarnoff entered high school, her goals changed, and a career as a creative exec at an ad agency became a more likely path: “I thought I was clever and could draw a little bit, so I thought I would come up with ways to create ads.”
But what Sarnoff didn't realize was that she was already working jobs that would set her up for the demands of the entertainment industry. Starting at 14, she was a camp counselor at a local day camp and then, two years later, starting waitressing at East Coast staple Friendly's Ice Cream in addition to her camp job. “I worked, like, 15-hour days,” she says. “It was crazy. But I've always worked a lot.”
Sarnoff was also an athlete, serving as captain of three varsity sports in high school. “It's not like we had any money or could join a country club when I was growing up,” she says. But a competitor's drive for excellence combined with dedicated leadership qualities was worth more than money could buy. Sarnoff—who is still an avid golfer—went on to graduate from Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, and then received an MBA from Harvard Business School.
What followed is an impressive, head-spinning résumé: president of Dow Jones Ventures, COO of the WNBA, executive vice president for consumer products and business development at Nickelodeon, president of BBC Studios Americas, and now chair and CEO of WarnerMedia’s Studios and Networks Group, a promotion she earned a year into first joining Warner Bros. as chair and CEO.
And yet, even with the enormous responsibility of her position, Sarnoff makes it sound pretty simple: “Our job is to connect the talent with their fans and be the most effective kind of conveyor of the great stories that the talent tells, and bringing them to life through Warner Bros. movies, Warner Bros. television, HBOMax, HBO, games, products, etc.”
Make no mistake, it's still a grind, but one which Sarnoff has prepared for her whole life. So, for Glamour's latest edition of Doing the Work, the self-proclaimed night owl (“I'm more productive in the evenings. I prefer to start out slower in the mornings,” she says) brings us up to speed on how Warner Bros. is changing the game and the advice she always carries with her.
How I define what it means to be a good boss
Luckily, I had bosses who understood what you could bring to the job, and they bet on you. They helped you grow your skill set. And that's what I try to do with people who work for me. I want to stretch them, challenge them. When somebody's allowing me to do that instead of just looking to see what I've done in the past and repeating that, that's when I'm happiest.
My favorite part of my job
The range of things I get to do, the quality of the content that we're making, and the incredible team that I get to work with across multiple divisions and types of media is what I love most. The Warner Bros. studio lot is an incredibly magical place that exudes the history and legacy of the company. You can feel it in the hallways and on the sidewalks. I sit in [Warner Bros. founder] Jack Warner's old office, so I feel that incredible legacy in the bones of the building. I love the fact that I can bring my perspective to it.
The one thing I’m a perfectionist about
I like to finish what I start. That doesn't mean doing everything immediately, but I like to make sure I live up to my commitments, whether it's company goals or promises to friends or family. I think I am somebody who's dependable and gets the job done. I don't know if that's a perfectionist quality as much as a responsibility to live up to your promises.
The most misunderstood part of my job
I think it's about how broad it is and, also, how challenging it can be to change legacy behavior. One of the things I was hired to do is to break the silos in Warner Bros. and kind of reorient how people work, and, most importantly, bring people together to work more collaboratively, rather than division by division. That's a huge new muscle for a corporate culture, but I love that because I feel like that plays to my strengths of understanding the different businesses…whether it's building franchises or looking at how we work with talent or how we super-serve our fans.
I think we've certainly come a long way and have more work to do, but it's very motivating when you see [projects come together], like the DC FanDome last summer, when we knew Comic-Con wasn't going to be able to happen in person. We created this one-day digital celebration of everything DC across all of our divisions, and got over 22 million fan interactions. The team worked on it for months, and it was so motivating. I was immensely proud of that.
How I handle anxiety in an ever-changing media landscape
I didn't have a particularly easy childhood, so I think I'm a pretty resilient person because I had to be. I took on a great deal of responsibility early in my life. And then I just kept my motivation up, worked hard, and kept in the game. As a result, challenges don't really bother me. In fact, they kind of motivate me and maybe that's because I played a lot of sports growing up. You're kind of taught to bring your game…and that's how I ended up behaving in the workplace as well—with an understanding that it's a team sport. I was the captain of three varsity sports in high school, which I guess pointed to leadership qualities, competitive instincts, and teamwork.
How I deal with disappointment
Everybody deals with disappointment so differently, but as a mom, I have tried to teach my kids to get over disappointments and believe in themselves. When [I'm handed disappointing news], I think about all the goodness in my life and how many things I have to be grateful for. And honestly, how much adversity I've overcome in my life, because then nothing seems so bad, really. The more you take risks, the more you overcome. I say to my kids, “Okay, what's the worst thing that could happen, and what would you do about it if it did?” Just playing it out in your head is like two thirds of the way to being okay with it. You build your own confidence in your own resilience.
The thank-you gift I always like to send
A bottle of wine or a case of wine, I guess, depending on how much I'm thanking. How big is the thank-you, right?
How I sign off on emails
My go-to email sign-off is “Thanks much.”
My favorite low-stakes treat after a productive day
Well, probably a glass of rosé. And if it's a bad day, it helps to do something physical, like throwing the Frisbee with my dog. Just taking your mind off of things, getting out of the house, and doing something active.
My go-to desk snack
Tamari almonds or pistachios. There's something about peeling them as it gives you an extra something to do.
The advice I’d give to my younger self
Believe in yourself. It's going to be okay.
People would be happier at work if...
…they could feel every day they made a difference and accomplished something. That's what motivates me. I think we get drowned in emails and tasks that sometimes you think don't really add up to anything. It's nice to feel like you've made a difference.
The TV shows I can’t stop talking about
Mare of Easttown on HBO, and the Friends reunion on HBO Max. I was there for the Friends reunion [at the taping this spring], and I just loved watching them snap right back into their roles so amazingly and convincingly in the table reads. When Lisa Kudrow said, “My eyes! My eyes!” it was the same. And I love that Matt LeBlanc remembered everything. It just showed how incredibly impactful that show was to not just all of us, but all of them.
Back when Friends was on, I would come home at night, put the kids to bed, and then work for a couple of hours. Friends was on in syndication, so I would turn it on and that would be how I decompressed. That's how I really became a superfan because I would see all the episodes every night at 11. It's more than comfort food—it's a shared experience that you can bond over.
The advice I always remember
Keep the company first, do what's right for the company, and good things will follow. Sometimes people get very focused on themselves and miss the bigger picture. If you're doing well by the company and by your boss, new doors will open. Don't get too crazy about other things along the way, such as thinking, I have to be promoted by this time frame or else. Focus on the bigger picture.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jessica Radloff is the Glamour West Coast editor. You can follow her on Instagram @jessicaradloff14.
Originally Appeared on Glamour